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Schools Set Out Policies To Diversify Holiday Celebrations

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For 32 years, students at Lee's Summit (Mo.) High School celebrated the Christmas season with a ceremony that included the lighting of candles, a Nativity scene, and readings from the Bible.

But when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to sue in 1987, school officials were told by their lawyers that the holiday assembly was unconstitutional.

Officials then set about to tone down the celebration, working to fashion a program that would not only pass constitutional muster but also celebrate religious diversity.

Their efforts ran counter, however, to popular sentiment. And the district wound up being sued in federal court--not by the ACLU, but by a group of students who claimed that their rights to religious freedom had been violated when the school tampered with tradition.

The Lee's Summit case typifies what has been called the "December dilemma"--public schools' annual friction over how to celebrate the Christmas holidays.

Religious and educational leaders said last week that new examples of the seasonal skirmishes were sure to emerge this month. But they indicated that a growing number of school districts are establishing formal policies on religious holidays to help deal with the problem.

The policies, they said, recognize an influx of schoolchildren coming from other cultures and other faiths. Some seek to broaden the whole curriculum to include more teaching about various religions.

But some also have curtailed traditional holiday celebrations, raising objections from parents and students.

"The trend is definitely away from the more traditional Christmas celebrations and toward celebrations that mark the season or time of year," said Charles C. Haynes, project director for the Americans United Research Foundation, a sister organization of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"The problems we still run into across the country are that a lot of folks remain confused about what they can and cannot do," he said.

One reason for the confusion is that the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule definitively on the issue.

In 1980, the High Court let stand the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit's decision in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, which held that a school's recognition of a religious holiday is constitutional if its purpose is to offer secular instruction about religious traditions, rather than to promote a particular religion.

In two cases decided this year, both on holiday displays for public buildings and grounds, the Supreme Court ruled that exclusively religious displays are unconstitutional, but that those mixing religious symbols from various faiths with secular symbols pass constitutional muster.

But in a footnote to that decision, the Justices indicated that the constitutional standards applied to public buildings, such as a city hall, in this matter may differ from those in a public-school setting.

To help schools sort out the matter, a coalition of religious and educational groups led by the Americans United Research Foundation published a brochure this October dealing with legal questions surrounding religious holidays.

It recommends that schools devise holiday programs "that serve an educational purpose for all students--programs that make no students feel excluded or identified with a religion not their own."

August W. Steinhilber, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, said he tells school officials that avoiding lawsuits in this area is difficult, but that, if policies are drawn carefully, "school boards will win" any legal challenges.

"As long as you don't proselytize, you're going to win," he said.

But in the Lee's Summit case, Superintendent Gail F. Williams said the change from a religious to a secular holiday celebration "really pitted a lot of people against one another."

Students staged a sit-in in November 1988 to persuade the school board to change its decision, and 93 who refused to return to class were suspended for three days.

On Dec. 16, 1988, six students filed suit in federal district court, claiming that the board's refusal to allow the traditional ceremony violated their consitutional rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly.

The Rev. Harley Sampson, pastor of the Assemblies of God church in Lee's Summit and father of one of the plaintiffs, said the school's alternative holiday assembly "espouses secular humanism."

A federal judge dismissed the suit, but more than 100 students were allowed to skip the assembly to attend a ceremony at a nearby church.

Parental confusion and dismay have been evident elsewhere.

The Wilmette, Ill., elementary school district established a policy last year that included the evaluation of holiday symbols and religious music for their educational content.

"We actually think it is a very good policy," said William Gussner, superintendent of the suburban-Chicago district. "But some staff members read it as stronger than it was designed to be."

False rumors began to spread, one that pupils would not be allowed to wear green and red clothing, another that the singing of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" would be banned.

The district did pull Handel's "Messiah" from its music program, a decision Mr. Gussner now regrets.

"We probably would not pull it again, if it was taught as part of the music program and kids were taught the musical significance of it," he said.

In Rochester, Mich., school officials have adopted a policy that forbids gift exchanges and limits holiday recognition to 10 days.

"We have a multicultural population, and our policy is in response to that changing population," said Diane Iras, a district spokesman.

Holidays from five major faiths--Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Shinto--have been put on the school calendar.

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